What is Body Composition and How Can You Improve Yours?
Are you fed up with the numbers on your bathroom scale? The important thing to remember is every weight and health measurement method has strengths and weaknesses. Rather than focusing on any one measurement method, try a more holistic approach that takes body composition into account. Body composition considers many variables, not just fat but also muscle, various circumference measurements, and a number of other factors that are unique to your individual body.
Gaining a better understanding of body composition can help you build confidence in your journey towards a healthy lifestyle.
What is body composition?
Body composition is a term used to describe the relationship between fat and lean mass in an individual person's body. It is one of the more important components of fitness. Certain metrics that are frequently used to estimate a person's health, such as body mass index (BMI), are often problematic as they don't always take into account other important factors.
For example, the amount of lean muscle mass a person might have. Using a metric like BMI can sometimes lead to false positives, such as high BMI ratings for individuals such as athletes who have significant muscle mass. Body composition, as a more general term, is used in an attempt to help better account for these differences.
Some of the things that determine body composition include:
Other lean tissues (e.g. skin, protein, minerals)
Why is body composition important?
Understanding body composition is important to help you develop a more realistic plan for your health goals. For example, many people's health goals include "losing weight." Scale weight is only one factor, however. If you eat a calorie-restricted and nutrient deficient diet, you might lose scale weight but you might also be losing lean muscle mass. Muscle is generally more dense than fat and also burns more calories. The more muscle mass you lose, generally the your metabolic rate may decline as well.
It's important to note that lean muscle mass is one of the more significant factors in human longevity (Abramowitz et al. 2018). In short, the more lean muscle mass you have, the more likely you are to avoid injury and live a longer and healthier life.
Considering all of this, it's important to take multiple factors into account and not get too focused on any one health metric for determining body composition. As we'll see in a bit, there are simple methods you can begin using to start estimating things like fat mass and assessing where your body composition is currently. From there you can begin developing a realistic plan to make health improvements.
How to measure body composition
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of methods for calculating body composition. The important thing to remember is they can all be broken down into two categories. In many cases, the simple measurement methods below might be all you need.
Remember, you don’t have to achieve the most accurate body composition numbers possible. Ballpark estimates, often easily achieved with these simple methods, are usually more than sufficient to give you a starting point to work from. And, when working towards better health and fitness, a trend toward healthier numbers is something to feel good about.
Simple measurement methods (anthropometric measurement):
Body mass index (BMI)
Hip and waist circumference
Body composition scales
Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA)
In certain cases, it might be worth exploring some of the more complex methods of estimating body composition. Particularly, if you feel that due to your body type, the simple measurements are not accurately reflecting your true body composition. It’s important to note that most of these methods are considerably more expensive and some might not be readily available in your area.
One example where this might be the case is an athlete or bodybuilder who has significant muscle mass. With significant lean mass, often people will have artificially inflated BMI numbers. Also, typical circumference measurements, such as for legs and arms, may not account for low body fat and high lean mass situations.
In other cases, some people may tend to naturally carry more weight in certain areas and not in others. For example, some people may have relatively lean legs and arms but carry significant abdominal fat.
Complex measurement methods (laboratory measurement):
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Computed tomography (CT) scan
Air displacement plethysmography
Regardless of which methods you choose to experiment with, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Start with the simple measurement methods first, as these are inexpensive or free and most of them are quick to test with. Try using at least 2-3 of these methods to begin developing a ballpark idea of your true body composition. In most cases, this is probably sufficient for most people. At that point, if you feel you are a bit of an outlier, you might consider trying one of the complex measurement methods.
How to improve body composition
It's easy to get overwhelmed with the variety of methods for measuring body composition, especially when trying to figure out how to improve yours. The important thing to remember is, that to make improvements, you only need to focus on four key areas:
Making dietary changes
A healthy diet is the cornerstone of achieving a healthy body composition. To start with, focus on natural foods like:
Good sources of fat
Try to reduce or eliminate as many artificial foods and drinks as you can. Also, increase your water intake to around 11 cups per day for women or 15 cups per day for men. If you’re well-hydrated and eating a diet rich in natural foods, this will go a long way towards reducing or eliminating the stressors you’re putting into your body.
Some examples of these dietary stressors include excessive alcohol or sugar consumption and its effects on overworking the liver. Liver health issues can have a drastic effect on overall health and longevity. The next steps below largely deal with the other types of both good and bad stress on the body.
Increasing physical activity
In short, work towards adding strength training and cardio into your healthy lifestyle goals. You’ll want to find a realistic balance between the two that is a good fit with your time and lifestyle constraints. For example, if your time is limited, try to at least walk for 15 minutes per day to incorporate at least some limited cardio exercise.
For strength training, consider focusing on the four basic compound lifts to keep things simple and reduce the amount of time needed:
Also consider periodic stretching to keep those muscles and joints limber and healthy.
Improving sleep quality
Did you know that you can build muscle in your sleep? We all tend to think muscle is built in the gym but that's not technically correct. In the gym, you break down your muscles. When you’re not exerting your body, such as when sleeping, your body is building those muscles back up stronger than before. This is, of course, provided you have a healthy diet with plenty of quality protein to fuel that muscle-building activity.
If you feel that you’re working hard and even putting serious work into the gym but the results aren’t showing up as expected, keep in mind the sleep angle. Lack of sleep can have a substantial impact on your hormones, which can drastically affect most other areas of your life. You might simply not be getting enough rest which is negatively affecting your hormones and reducing your body’s ability to repair itself. Try to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night to ensure you are resting and recovering as much as possible.
Making other lifestyle changes
Other changes to consider making largely involve reducing various stresses on the body. This could include things like dietary stresses. For example, consider reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption. Not only will this reduce your overall caloric intake but it will reduce the amount of work your liver has to do. Similarly, consider reducing or eliminating smoking. This will especially help if you’re also adding more cardio into your lifestyle.
Other lifestyle changes worth considering are:
Disconnecting or at least significantly restricting your time on social media.
Meditating and keeping a gratitude journal.
Intermittent fasting and not eating at least 3-4 hours before bed.
Sleeping at more consistent times to improve your circadian rhythm.
The bottom line is anything you can do to reduce or eliminate physical and mental stress is a good thing. This will help improve and stabilize your hormone levels, putting your body in a healthier state to function more optimally.
How does strength training improve body composition?
In short, strength training builds muscle, muscle burns more calories, muscle helps add stability, and muscle helps protect you from injury. In general, improving body composition means replacing excess body fat with more lean muscle mass.
Do you ever hear people complain about loose skin from weight loss, or still appearing “flabby” despite having lost weight? This is sometimes known as “skinny fat.” In essence, it’s a lack of muscle to fill out your skin. This is a nice side benefit of improving body composition. As you improve your lean muscle mass while you lose weight, your muscles will help fill out any loose skin so there’s minimal flab!
One thing to note is that strength training is not the same as simply “lifting weights.” Strength training usually involves organized programs (of which there are many) of repetitions, sets, and efficacious weight levels. Below efficacious weight levels, you generally won’t be building muscle. Also, if repetitions or sets are too minimal, you might plateau early and not see any further gains in strength and muscle.
Many strength training programs progress over roughly 2-6 week periods of increasing difficulty (this involves the concepts of periodization and progressive overload). After all, it takes time for your body to repair the damage done in the gym and build your muscles back stronger than before.
How long can it take to change body composition?
When taking a holistic approach to improving body composition and focusing on the four key areas of improvement, it’s not uncommon to begin seeing positive improvements within 1-2 weeks. In general, it’s a good idea not to get too focused on short-term changes. When you first start a coordinated health improvement plan, you’ll usually see many ups and downs as your body gets used to the new workload, recovery from strength training, and all of the other changes you’re making.
In general, you should start to see meaningful results within 30 days of a coordinated body composition improvement plan. If you have significant weight to lose, it might take 3-6+ months to see the results that you want. While it can be tempting to keep this in mind, it’s important to focus more on what you’ve achieved over the past month. Every little bit counts! Provided you’re sticking to the plan, a past month’s progress will likely mean:
You’ve lost a few pounds of fat
You’ve gained a pound or two of lean muscle
Your body shape is slowly improving
You’re feeling more energized and strong
You’re feeling positive about the efforts you’re putting into your health and wellness
These are all good things. Focus on “the past month” for 3-6 months, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve!
It’s important to remember that improving body composition is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus first on taking simple measurements to get a basic idea of where your body composition is currently. From there, focus on the four areas you can make improvements. Also, place an emphasis on strength training to help improve your longevity and protect from injury.
Sedera Members are committed to making healthy choices and striving for a healthy lifestyle. This helps them have better health outcomes which is optimal for them, and also good for the Sedera Community.
Understanding body composition can help you understand what might be holding you up on your fitness journey and how to gain more traction on your healthy lifestyle goals. But remember, don’t try to do too much at once. Achieving and maintaining a healthy body composition is a marathon. A little improvement each day is all you need.
SEDERA DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. The information contained herein is for informational and/or educational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.